Opinionista Rebone Tau 9 June 2021

Winter of discontent: #shutdown protests over poor service delivery will define 2021 local elections

In the run-up to the 2021 local government elections, poor service delivery – a major problem across South Africa that continues to get worse – is set to be the defining issue. We have seen a surge in #shutdown campaigns due to poor service delivery, while load shedding adds fuel to the fire.

The road to the local government elections, scheduled for 27 October 2021, is set to be bumpy, given the gargantuan challenges facing different local communities. It is going to be a long winter, judging by the number of protests around the country since the beginning of May.

We have seen a surge in #shutdown campaigns in different communities due to poor service delivery. The issues raised by residents include the growing number of potholes, lack of electricity, unavailability of potable water, refuse not collected, sometimes for months, and allegations that jobs in local government are given to people aligned to political parties.

Recently, there was a #shutdown campaign in the Makana Municipality as a result of problems that have dragged on for years, particularly potholes and lack of access to clean water. In 2020, the Grahamstown High Court ordered the Eastern Cape Provincial Executive to dissolve the Makana Municipal Council due to its failure to provide basic services (the Eastern Cape government and the Makana Municipality are appealing the case at the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein). If it were not for Rhodes University, the municipality would be a ghost town. Students carry the municipality. Their presence and money have saved many local businesses from complete collapse.

Poor service delivery is a major problem across South Africa and continues to get worse. The Auditor-General’s reports are a clear sign that things won’t get better soon. To compound the problems, load shedding has led to even more collapse. Truth be told, people in the townships or villages have long experienced electricity shortages and cuts – not only because of load shedding. There are communities that go without electricity for days, which means food spoils and small businesses suffer losses.

Crime rates generally soar when there is no electricity, with people mugged early on their way to work or when they return at night. Unemployment is another persistent problem.

Over the past few months we have seen a surge in service delivery protests around the country, taking the form of #shutdown campaigns during which disaffected young people burn tyres. They shut down traffic and close businesses with the idea that, if they cannot secure jobs and service delivery, then society must come to a halt.

Following the recent #shutdown campaign in the Mangaung Municipality, the municipal manager was suspended. The success of this campaign was then adopted as a template in other areas of the country. Consciously or inadvertently, #shutdown campaigns have become the main way of holding government officials to account. Citizens are fed up and that is why there is a low voter turnout for every election. Clearly, citizens are losing faith in the system with every election cycle, which is why they no longer see the need to vote – their lives are not getting better.

Accountability and transparency are urgently needed at local government level. Political parties shouldn’t launch manifestos simply to win votes. They need to respect voters and deploy competent councillors who aren’t there just to draw a salary but are capable of serving the people with honour and dignity.

South Africa needs reliable councillors who understand local government and the importance of quality service delivery in their wards. They need to understand the importance of working towards what they promise people on the campaign trail.

Councillors need to have a relationship with residents if they are serious about serving them, working closely with them to build better communities. In the words of Ché Guevara, “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”. Councillors must call community meetings regularly during their five-year terms and not just go to the people when they are campaigning and disappear once they are elected.

Reliability is another key element in the relationship between councillors and citizens. Reliability, trust and customer satisfaction build on each other and you can’t separate them if you are serious about service delivery.

Councillors also need to make sure citizens are involved in budgeting because it is a democratic process in which residents directly decide how to allocate part of the municipal budget. This would create trust, earned through transparent decision-making as well as effective and efficient action by councillors. DM

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